Keeping Your Conscience ClearErwin W. Lutzer | November 16, 2014
Selected highlights from this sermon
In the book of Ephesians, Paul leads us through a process to help us clear our consciences. We’re to imitate Christ—living as children of love and holiness. We also need to use our time for God’s glory.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer shows us how we can follow Paul’s instructions, and also points out the lies Satan will use to keep us from doing just that.
It was Ogden Nash who wrote these words: “The only way to have happiness on this terrestrial ball is to have a clear conscience or none at all.” If you don’t have a clear conscience you can’t be very happy actually. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:5 (and I’ve quoted this verse almost every time in this series of messages), “The aim of our instruction is love that flows from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith.” That’s what the aim of our instruction is.
Now what we’d like to do today is to emphasize that the clear conscience not only gives us that kind of faith, but you know, the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “We commend ourselves to you with a good conscience.” Good conscience is also spoken of in 1 Peter. 1 Peter is associated with the fact that you are a good witness. Peter says that we should be able to give an answer to those who ask us of the hope that is within us with meekness and fear, and he says “with a good conscience,” so that if you are slandered you are able to endure it. Good conscience is powerful.
Now when I was a boy growing up in Canada, I went to school, first of all in the summer with a horse and buggy, and then in the winter, with a sleigh and with a horse. And so what we would do in this country schoolyard is we would play a game called Fox and Goose. What you did is you had a huge circle in the snow with various spokes, and then we would play tag, and that’s what we called Fox and Goose. One of the things we noticed is this: When we began that circle, everyone was so particular to stay within the tracks, to stay within the lines, but inevitably it would get messed up. And after it really got messed up what we would do is we’d walk through and kick dirt into it. We’d make the biggest mess that we possibly could with that circle and then we’d go off somewhere else and begin again.
As I think about that I realize that there are really two lies that Satan tells us. Lie number one is that one sin really doesn’t matter. Lie number two is “Now that you’ve messed up, you might as well mess up your life good and proper.” A defiled conscience causes you to do that which continues to defile. And that’s why it is very important that we keep our conscience clear, because when we keep it clear we’ll want to stay within the lines and we’ll be very conscious when we step over those lines.
Actually my passage of Scripture today is going to be found in the book of Ephesians. Ephesians chapter 5 is a very important passage of Scripture. I want you to turn to it. And we’re going to speak today about the topic of sin because it is sin that defiles our conscience, and we’ll talk about how to keep our conscience clear.
Ephesians 5:1 says, “Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children.” Let’s stop there for a moment. He uses the word mimic. Let us mimic God. Let us become imitators of God as dear children. The idea is that because we belong to God, God is our Heavenly Father, and because we are partakers of the divine nature, we have the chromosomes, if I can put it that way, of our Heavenly Father, and so there should be something within us that is like unto Him, and we ought to be able to imitate Him.
Now of course theologians make a distinction between the attributes of God. There are some attributes that are called non-communicable. What are those? Those are attributes that belong only to God that can never possibly belong to us. Those are the “omnis” – omnipresence, omnipotence, and all of those attributes that are really only God’s attributes. But there are other attributes that God can communicate to us, and the Apostle Paul here lists two of them and perhaps three that we can have as we imitate God.
The first is this: Walk in love, even as Christ has loved us and gave Himself up for us a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God, two characteristics of this love about which we speak today. First of all, it is a forgiving love, you’ll notice, for example, in the last verses of the fourth chapter. You know, when you are reading the Bible and you come across the word therefore you know that you should pause and ask why it’s there. And therefore really refers to the previous section, doesn’t it? And you’ll notice it says, “Let all wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you along with all malice. Be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” The first characteristic of being like God in love is to be a forgiving person because God in Christ forgave us.
You know in the sixth chapter of Luke, Jesus is talking about the Pharisees, and then He’s speaking to His disciples, and He makes it very clear. He says that we should be like our Heavenly Father. He says, “Love your enemies. Do good to them and bless them.” Why should we do that? It’s because your Heavenly Father blesses those who aren’t His. He sends rain on the just and the unjust, so in light of that, if we want to be God-like, we should even love our enemies because that’s the way in which we illustrate the love of God.
It is first of all a forgiving kind of love. Secondly, it is also a sacrificial love and that’s in chapter 5, verse 1, as we have already read. Jesus gave Himself up and He became a sin offering. He became the offering that God delighted in whereby our sins could be forgiven, and so He was very sacrificial in His commitment. He gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice, to God.
How can we be godly? How can we imitate God? Number one, what we have to think about is walking in love. But there’s more in the text here and it relates more specifically to a defiled conscience and walking with a pure conscience. Here’s what the Apostle Paul now says in verse 8, and I’m going to jump right into the middle of verse 8, and then we’re going to work backwards. He says, “You are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” That’s the second way in which we can be like God. God is light and therefore the text of Scripture encourages us also to walk in light, even as God is in light.
Now, we must understand that what the Apostle Paul is talking about here are moral issues, and what he seems to imply, and actually directly implies, is if we are not walking in light, if we are walking in darkness, as we shall see in a moment, that is walking in moral and spiritual darkness, and he addresses that.
So with that, let’s go back and see the context in which he invites us to walk in light, which is really to walk in holiness. God is holy. We are to be holy. The Scripture is very clear that we are to be like God. Now let’s look at what it says in verse 3. “But sexual immorality and all impurity (You notice how all-encompassing this is) or covetousness (Why covetousness? It’s because it is really the heart of everything. Paul says it is really idolatry. It is wanting something that is not supposed to be yours. In a sense all sin is covetousness, so Paul puts that in.) must not even be named among you as is proper to saints. Let there be no filthiness, or foolish talk, or crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
What the Apostle Paul does here is he lists things that are improper for Christians. And I think that you understand the meaning of the word immorality (and impurity and covetousness). I do want to add a word though about what he says about foolish talk and crude joking. Clearly God does not mind if we have a sense of humor. You know, what he’s talking about here is impure jokes. He’s talking about dirty jokes. He’s talking about low kinds of humor.
When I was in Bible school there was a man there who was very sincere. You could describe him, I think, as over-saved. Have you ever met somebody who’s just really over-saved? When we’d be laughing in a room he’d knock on the door and say, “There’s to be no joking. There’s to be no jesting.” Obviously Paul isn’t talking about that. A sense of humor is so important as to who we are. I think God has a sense of humor. I really do. (applause) Yeah, thank you. I’m glad that I got a little bit of support, not support throughout the whole congregation but part of the congregation over here. (laughter)
I think God has a sense of humor. Have you ever looked carefully at a rhinoceros? (laughter) I mean you can look them up and you can ask the question, “What was God thinking when He created them?” Of course, He has a sense of humor, but what Paul is talking about is sub-humor. It’s the kind of humor that you sometimes have in business where you make fun of sin. That would be one way to identify the kind of crude joking and jesting that he’s talking about here. But that being said, now let’s continue to read the text because this becomes very, very serious.
You’ll notice it says, and I’m in verse 5, “For you may be sure of this.” When Paul begins that way you know that he’s talking about something that is very, very important because we can be sure of everything else that he writes in this chapter, but he doesn’t want us to miss this.
You can be sure of this. You may not know whether the Cubs will ever win another World Series. You can’t be sure of that, and there are lots of other things that you can’t be sure of, but be sure of this. And now, no matter who you are, no matter how you are listening to this message, this is the time for you to be all ears, as the saying goes.
“You may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, who is covetous (that is an idolater) has no inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God.” Wow!
There are two ways to interpret that phrase “no inheritance.” Some people believe that it means that you will be denied the opportunity to rule in the Kingdom. You will not be able to inherit the Kingdom. You may enter it but not inherit it. That’s the most charitable way that you can interpret this. Others are adamant in insisting this means that you will not even enter the Kingdom. In other words, you will be lost forever. You will not be in the Kingdom. You will not be in heaven. You will be lost for all of eternity if you think that you can practice these things and make them a part of your lifestyle, and at the same time you are able to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. This is very serious, my dear friend. If that’s part of your lifestyle, and if you say, “This is who I am,” and you are practicing immorality and impurity and that becomes a part of your life, and you never deal with it, you never fight it because you’re simply going along with it, the text of Scripture says, “Be very careful because know this. There will not be an inheritance for you in the Kingdom and you may not even enter the Kingdom.”
Now if you think that that is very upfront and serious, it is, but let’s keep reading here. And then he says in verse 6, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Don’t be deceived by empty words.
Yesterday I spoke at a conference here in the area on apologetics, which is the defense of the faith, and I was reminded of a book that they had there. And the book is entitled The Making of an Atheist. And the subtitle was How Immorality Leads to Unbelief. This is an excellent little book. Actually it’s published by Moody Publishers, the name that you can trust, so you can trust it. And the writer has concluded, after extensive research, something that I’ve always believed intuitively, that the reason really that young people who go to college lose their faith is not because of the intellectual arguments. The arguments aren’t that strong. The arguments for Christianity are compelling. They do it because they fall into the sin of immorality and then, not knowing what to do with their guilt, not knowing what to do with their situation, purity going back to purity seems to be impossible for them. They don’t know where to park their guilt so what they decide to do is to plunge headlong into that lifestyle. Then they build their whole theology around it, and they begin to say, “Well, you know I don’t believe the Bible any more. I don’t want to go to church anymore.” And they begin to justify it and begin to live in a bubble where nothing that can be said to them can dissuade them of the fact that they are living wrongly. And the Bible says, “Do not be deceived by empty words.” Wow!
We live in a culture today that is willingly deceived by all kinds of empty words. Theo Hudson, a British journalist (I don’t know much about him. I’m not sure if he’s a believer or not.) said this: “In order for a sexual revolution to be complete, you need three things. First of all, that which was condemned has to be celebrated. You have to celebrate it. And then that which was at one time celebrated, such as traditional marriage, must now be condemned. And those who refuse to celebrate the revolution, now they must be condemned.” And that’s where we are today. And I never really understood that until I just read a book recently about this, and a lot of other topics, and it pointed out that in a purely secular culture where sexuality becomes, in effect, the controlling reality, the important thing, and where sexual freedom that is way out of control becomes the dominant value of a culture, it is very important that not one form of marriage be above another. Therefore all of them must be dragged down. Anything noble needs to meet the lowest common denominator because no one’s sexuality and their preference should in any way be perceived as better than another. So everyone is together. And those who refuse to celebrate now need to be condemned.
A longer discussion no doubt at some other time, but notice this: “Do not be deceived by empty words,” Paul says, because of these things, and you can be sure of this, “because the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” What a day and age in which we live, when our television and our media and our iPads and speeches that are given are filled with empty words.
So there are really two ways in which we can be like God. One is we walk in love. The other is we walk in light. Now what the Apostle Paul does is he talks about their conversion and I want you to look at the text. He says in verse 7, “Therefore do not associate with them (that is, people like that) for at one time you were darkness but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
It’s interesting that in the book of Isaiah the Bible says the people walked in darkness. By the time you get to the time of Christ in Matthew 4 it’s quoted as saying, “The people sit in darkness,” and here in this passage you find that the people are darkness – darkness personified. And so what he says is, “The Lord has given you light. Now you are light. They are darkness. You are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” And we have this elsewhere, of course, in the words of Jesus in other parts of the Scripture.
And notice, “For the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true, and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them for it is shameful to even speak of the things that they do in secret. And when anything is exposed to the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore,” it says, “awake, oh sleeper. Rise from the dead and Christ’s light will shine on you.” What he’s saying is that the works of darkness are unfruitful. Why? It’s because no fruit grows in the dark.
The other day some friend sent us a pot. It’s like a tree that’s going to become a flower, and one of the things it says is, “You have to put me in the sunlight.” It’s going to grow inside but it has to be next to a window.
Now regarding unfruitful works of darkness there is really no fruit in darkness, no fruit that God accepts or takes delight in. But rather, when we walk in the light, now our works can be pleasing to God and in this pleasing to God there is fruit in which He takes delight. So the Apostle Paul is talking about the transformation.
If you are here and you have never received Christ as Savior, the Bible says that God has translated us from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of His dear Son – into the Kingdom of Light. That’s what happens at conversion. And if you are just walking in darkness, you may never have been converted by God. It’s a great miracle when you receive Christ as Savior.
And then, he says, “Arise, oh sleeper, arise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you.” Every time I read that verse I am reminded of the time that Rebecca and I were at Ravinia. You know you can go to Ravinia and hear this beautiful music. They have orchestras and you can buy a ticket and go into the pavilion there and you can enjoy it, or you can take a blanket on a beautiful summer day, and eat a sandwich and then just lie outside looking at the stars, listening to the beautiful music. And that’s what we were doing one time, and a man next to me put down his blanket and instantly fell asleep and he began to snore. (laugh) I mean he began to snore in such a way that we wanted to actually get up and go somewhere else. But we were kind of embarrassed. There were all these other people around and we figured that at some point, thankfully, this was going to be over. And it was, and I think it was Mendelssohn or Strauss (one of those great composers) and when it was over everyone stood to give a standing ovation. And we all stood and began to clap. He awoke and stood up and he began to clap along with everybody else, giving the impression that he’d been with us the whole time. And that’s the way it’s going to be in the Day of Judgment, I’m convinced, when Jesus asks us to stand before Him. There are going to be people who have been asleep their whole lives but they are going to want to say, “Oh yeah, I was a part of it. Yeah, I was one of them.” The text says, “Arise, oh sleeper. Arise from the dead.”
You may ask, “Well, how does this relate to keeping your conscience pure?” I’m going to help you with that in just a moment. There is a connection. You see it is these kinds of sins that we have been talking about. It is walking in darkness that pollutes the conscience because when you think of a clear conscience what you need to think of is purity. You need to think of having been forgiven and cleansed by God, and living in fellowship within that cleansing. That’s the way you keep your conscience clear, and here clearly are sins, and there are many others, of course, that defile the conscience.
Now there’s a third way. Maybe the Apostle Paul would want us to say that we can be like God. And he says then in verse 15, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time.” You know, I like the King James Version at this point because the Greek word is redeemed, so it’s really redeeming the time. And when it comes to redeeming the time, you are buying it out of the marketplace. That’s why I like this imagery so much. Every day we are given 1,440 minutes. And once those minutes are spent you can never have them back. You can spend them in different ways, but once they are gone, they are gone forever and a new day starts. And what Paul is saying is that we have to redeem the time. We have to buy the time out of all of the other commitments, all of the other cluttered lives that some of us lead, all of the pressures when we come to the office and we already have our list of things to do before we get here. We have to redeem the time because the days are evil and we have to be like God, and walk in wisdom. Now God doesn’t have to worry about redeeming the time but we do. We redeem the time.
Now what I’d like to do is to bring this down to help us in terms of clearing our conscience. What do we need to do? First of all, begin each day in the light. Some of you have heard this. It’s been a habit of mine for many years. Before I actually get out of bed (and this morning I did wake up far too early) I pray. I give my day to God. I say to God, “God, today glorify yourself in my life at my expense, but upfront is there any sin that I need to confess? Is there any darkness between You and me that needs to be taken care of before I roll out of bed and begin my day?" For me it begins there, and of course, I don’t stay in bed all day. I thought I’d just throw that in. What we need to do is to prove the power of mind over mattress, and as a result, we need to get out of bed, but you begin there in the light. And if you wake up and there’s darkness, and that’s, in fact, the second thing that I’d like to emphasize, recognize the darkness. If you are watching television and you know right well that there is darkness there that is going to defile your conscience, what you do is you recognize it. If you are a believer, upfront God is going to help us to retrain our consciences so that we pick up on the darkness almost immediately rather than immersing ourselves in the darkness, but we recognize that it’s on its way, and by God’s grace we turn from it.
One of the things that I don’t like about the fact that I wrote down six points of obedience here is because, once again, let’s not look upon this as some new technique that we have now given you by which you can take care of addictions or the darkness. Ultimately, all of that is done because of Jesus. Remember this. God does not ask us to do anything that Jesus has not already done for us. Therefore, walking in the light really involves all the time looking to Jesus to be in us what we aren’t. It’s always a matter of faith, but nonetheless, the steps that I’m giving you today prepare our hearts for that kind of obedience and faith.
So first of all, begin the day in the light. Make that a habit. Second, learn to recognize the darkness. Somebody said, and I don’t know who, that they want a conscience that is so sensitive that if a leaf were to fall on it, it would leave an imprint. Well, I don’t think I’m there yet, but you know, the longer we walk with God, the more sensitive our conscience becomes, and the more we are alert to the fact that the Holy Spirit of God is grieved when we allow darkness into our lives.
Next, this is very important. Confess your sins thoroughly and immediately, and I’m talking to Christians now. Do you remember what I told you when the sermon opened about the fox and goose trail? See, there are many people who just allow sins to stack up – one after another, after another, after another. And then they might come to church on a Sunday possibly to confess their sins, but possibly not, because in their minds they are saying, “Well, you know, I’ve blown it so badly there’s no use coming back home to my Father. I’m just going to continue to live the way I am living.” And their defiled conscience continues to be defiled. Very important! Confess your sin immediately when you recognize darkness, and you don’t have to wait until evening or the next morning. I mean sometimes I’ve confessed my sin even while I am driving. Now you may wonder what sin that is. I don’t know, but I thought I’d just throw that in to give you an illustration of the fact that in a sense, we should live so open before God that we are continually confessing any darkness that comes to mind, so that we are walking in fellowship. And even when you are being tempted, it is important to stay in the light, to quote verses of Scripture, to affirm your commitment to God, even while the temptation is going on. You are looking at something that you should not be looking at, and during that period of time you are affirming the fact that “I thank You that Your Word says that I am to reign in righteousness. I thank You that I am joined to Jesus Christ. I thank You that He is my mediator. I thank You that You are my redeemer,” and you are saying all those things, and pretty soon you say to yourself, “What in the world is a child of God watching this trash for?” because what’s happening is you are learning to walk in the light.
Sometimes it is said, “Keep short accounts with God.” That’s okay but let me give you a better expression. “Keep ‘current’ accounts with God,” living in the light that God says we are.
Next, commit completely. Here I’m thinking of the book of James where it says these words: “Dearly beloved, submit yourselves to God.” If you and I could have a talk personally, what is the point of entry that you have in your life where the darkness comes? What is the point of entry? As you and I grow in our love for God we should be willing to submit that to God. Jesus said, “If your eye offend you pluck it out and cast it from you, if your arm is offending you, cut it off.” He’s speaking figuratively, but what He is saying is, “Do whatever you need to do to no longer walk in darkness and keep stumbling into the same sin. Do whatever you need to do. Pay whatever price you need to pay that you might be able to say that you have submitted unto God.”
And then I say, resist triumphantly. In fact, that’s what James says. He says, “Dearly beloved, submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” And I believe that you resist him by continuing to quote Scripture even in the midst of your temptation, even in the midst of your struggle. Even when it seems as if the temptation is overwhelming you keep your mind on God, on Christ, and you keep insisting and you keep yielding and you keep faith.
And my last point is you keep worshiping. Let me suggest to you that it may be more important for us to worship Jesus than to be obsessed with how to overcome our sins because in the process of worshiping Jesus that’s when sin begins to lose its power. Become a worshiper of Jesus. Read some of the passages of the book of Revelation. “Thou art worthy because Thou has redeemed for Thy glory men from every tongue and kindred and nation.” And learn to be a worshiper of Jesus. Direct your attention away from all of your struggles to Him and live that way and you will soon discover that it will change your mind. It will change the way in which you process reality, and it will help you to access the tremendous victory that Jesus gave and purchased for us as redeemed sinners.
And so that’s where we are. What we need to do is to keep our conscience clear. As a man thinks in his heart so he is. Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life. Don’t allow your conscience to be darkened by the soot of sin.
I began by saying that Satan has two lies. Number one, one sin doesn’t matter. Number two, after you have committed that sin you might as well just enjoy yourself and continue to sin. You are defiled so what you need to do is to accept that and keep on defiling yourself. May I encourage you to realize that God in Christ has won such a spectacular victory over sin, over Satan, that as God works in our hearts we do not need to ever say, “I have to be this way, I have to keep defiling my conscience” because the grace of God is greater than your sin. (applause)
If you are here today and you have never received Christ as Savior, if you are still walking in darkness as described here, if you put faith in Jesus and receive what He did for you, He will enable you to be forgiven, to be reconciled, and you’ll begin the journey of walking in the light.
Do you know what God can do with your past? Just as when you are working on a computer and you make a mistake and you maybe even write a whole paragraph, and you realize it’s wrong, and you hit the delete key and it deletes what you have written, God can actually delete the guilt of your past and set you on a different course. And the Bible says that from your conscience will proceed the purity and the love and the sincere faith. Blessed are those whose consciences are clear.
Father, we pray that You might help these thoughts to ring true in the lives of all those who have listened. Some especially needed this message. Others perhaps less so, but we thank You today that You stand ready to help us in the depths of our need, and may there be no one here who says that his sin is too great. We pray today that we might see the wonder of your grace greater than our sin. We thank You today that before the throne we have someone who represents us – Jesus, who is greater than Satan, and greater than our sin.
Now before I close this prayer, do you need to talk to God? What is it that you need to tell Him? You talk to Him right now in this moment of silence.
And Father, we pray that You’ll help all of us to be obedient to what we have heard. Grant us the grace to turn from the darkness into the light, that great antiseptic – the light that cleanses and keeps us clean. Do that, Father, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.